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women of color accounting

How Businesses Can Better Support Women of Color


In the wake of George Floyd and others, many businesses -- including accounting firms -- renewed their commitment to enhancing diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Unfortunately, women of color still are often missing out on the benefits. Why is this happening and what can be done? CPA and D&I consultant Jina Etienne, former president and CEO of NABA, suggests a bold new approach in her first article for AccountingWEB. 

Dec 16th 2020
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Accounting firms talk a lot about the importance of providing development and advancement opportunties, offering coaching and mentoring, and their commitment to diversity and inclusion. For women of color, however, many of these commitments fall short. 

Societal shifts since the death of George Floyd have raised awareness of and interest in implicit bias, the lack of diversity in the corporate America, and the challenges minorities face in the workforce. As a result, there has been a wave of renewed commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion across the profession. 

While appreciated and well intentioned, many efforts are fairly high level or focus more on improving diversity broadly, rather than identifying different solutions for the underrepresented groups in their firms. The needs and experiences of women of color tend to get overlooked because they are assumed to benefit from programs aimed at African Americans or women. As one of the largest underrepresented groups in corporate America, however, these women need tailored solutions that address the challenges they face at the intersection of both race and gender.

The Current Landscape

According to the Census Bureau, 60.9 percent of accountants and auditors are female, and 68 percent of accountants and auditors are white. When you narrow those numbers to public accounting, the proportion of white men increases dramatically. The most recent AICPA Trends Report shows CPAs in firms are 84 percent male and 58 percent white. Those number increase significantly at the partner level: 77 percent are male, and 95 percent are white. The dropoff is significant when one looks at statistics for black CPAs, with nearly a 50 percent drop-off rate from 2 percent of all CPAs in firms to only 1 percent of all partners. There is a significant lack of representation of black CPAs at the leadership level in public accounting, particularly for women of color.

Currently, 40 percent of the women in the US population are women of color, and 13.8 percent of these are black. In a recent report, Catalyst projects that women of color will be the the majority of women in the US population by 2060, and 15.2 percent will be black women. This means the accounting industry needs to make significant improvements in the recruitment and retention of women of color in order to grow.

How Firms Can Enhance D&I Measures

Currently, diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts in most firms focus on two things:

  1. The pipeline (i.e., more minorities studying accounting, then becoming CPAs)
  2. Retention (reducing turnover of minorities on staff)

While these measures are important, the current approach focuses on minorites as a single group. We know from research, data and employee feedback that the different minority groups experience different challenges or require different types of support to achieve accuess.

Not only do we have to look beyond the pipeline and recruiting, we need to think of different ways to implement those initiatives for different minority groups. There also needs to be a shift in thinking and focus on equity, not equality.

This means offering different types of support, resources, programs and opportunities based on the needs of each group, rather than offering everyone the same support. To improve diversity, firm culture must be both inclusive and equitable.

Rather than doing the same things differently, what if we took the “curb-cut” approach instead? This theory is based on the thought that when you address the challenges facing the most vulnerable groups, the resulting solutions most often will benefit the entire group.

The name is the result of changes made by the city of Berkeley, Calif., in response to pressure by disabled activists in 1972. A curb cut is that ramp at the end of driveways, a small modification that offered mobility to people in wheelchairs.

Although curb cuts were not new, the activism in Berkeley sparked a change that rippled across the country. The result is something that we now think of as normal, routine, even expected.

Their popularity spread, not because it solved a problem for the disabled community, but because many others benefited too: mothers pushing strollers, travelers pulling suitcases, bikers, skateboarders, delivery people using hand trucks and large product racks – and so many others. The curb cut provided equity, where we offer disadvantaged groups the resources they need to eliminate the barrier presented by the disadvantage.

This is not equality, where everyone gets the same resource. Angela Glover Blackwell, author of “The Curb-Cut Effect,” puts it this way: “Equality gives everyone the right to ride on the bus. Equity ensures that there are curb cuts so people in wheelchairs can get to the bus stop and lifts so they can get on the bus.”

She goes on the explain why solutions that focus on one marginalized group can benefit everyone and strengthen, in the case of the curb cut, the entire nation. The benefit of the curb-cut effect has since been documented in various ways across society, where specific changes to legislation, policies and even products resulted in benefits beyond the group they were designed for.

The accounting profession has been working on D&I for decades, yet the numbers above make it clear that we have a long way to go. So much of the work has been focused on the general idea of diversity, but efforts haven’t targeted any particular underrepresented group. In fact, most of the solutions being offered broadly focus on recruiting “diverse” candidates, understanding implicit bias, individual responsibility, communicating the firm’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and training to better understand the challenges minorities face.

All of these are very important actions that firms should take. They are also very high level, and, if history tells us anything, we may see results, but they might not necessarily be long-lasting. Employees from diverse backgrounds appreciate the intention of firms to drive change, but many don’t feel that enough is being done to address their group in particular.

The curb-cut approach offers a solution that might result in long-lasting changes across the entire industry. In public accounting, black women are one of the most underrepresented groups in public accounting, totalling approximately 1.6 percent of CPAs and 0.23 percent of all partners. So, this would be the group we focus on as a starting point.

First, we need to understand the experiences, barriers and challenges black women face across the industry. Then, we must identify specific solutions to address those challenges. The curb-cut effect would result in benefits that cascade out to all underrepresented groups, then everyone in the firm, and, eventually, people across the industry.

So, what might those solutions look like? Let’s look at a few examples:

1. Access

For years, recruiting lingo has included phrases like “best candidate” or “good match” or “culture fit” when identifying then evaluating candidates. Behind those phrases are underlying expectations for what looks or feels “right” in terms of behavior, speech, personality, dress, background and so on.

Although the accounting profession as we know it dates back to the early 19th century, as of 1965, there were only 100 black CPAs in the United States. As a result, those “fit” and “culture” norms have long been established based on white, male leadership styles and behaviors.

So, one idea might be to look for ways to interrupt those norms by identifying strategies to incorporating the styles, perspectives, experiences, etc., of black women into the definition of what “good fit” means. For help, firms could reach out to organizations such as the Alliance of Black Women Accountants (ABWA), whose mission is to not only recruit but to empower, support and mentor women of color, specifically in the accounting profession.

If you position organizations such as ABWA as subject matter experts, HR leaders could develop a deeper understanding of how women of color perceive the firm, benefits, policies and opportunities. This would allow them to develop different, nuanced and modified strategies to not only identify more black female candidates, but improve the acceptance rate by all women of color.

2. Opportunity

Although there are many factors that influence advancement opportunities in public accounting, client assignment ranks high on the list. Those assignments are often the result of relationships developed through internal networking, both formal (think: mentoring programs) and informal (think: invitations to happy hour).

A recent study found that white professionals are more likely to have access to senior leaders than black professionals, and the latter have to work harder for advancement opportunities than their white peers. These networks are harder to access for women, especially women of color.

So few firm leaders are black and even fewer are black women. As a result, many social, networking and mentorship opportunities are designed for white professionals, particularly men (think: golf outings), leaving black professionals to adapt to fit in. This is called code switching, where people change their language, demeanor, behavior, dress and even hairstyle to assimilate.

Women adopt similar strategies to overcome barriers resulting from gender biases that stereotype some behaviors and styles of women to be less leaderly. Black women need to overcome both the race and the gender barriers.

One idea might be to reach out to organizations like the Executive Leadership Council (ELC), whose mission is specifically focused on developing successful black executives. It is important to note that the emphasis here is on developing leaders, not grooming black women to become partners.

The ELC helps organizations understand barriers to leadership for black professionals, with programs specifically designed for black women. By partnering with the ELC, firms could identify how those racial and gender barriers are experienced by women of color in their organization. These insights could lead to the development of targeted programs that speak to these experiences. This might strengthen the leadership pipeline for black women, resulting in black female partners.

3. Development

Learning and development programs are often separated into different “tracks” – some focused more on development (think: mentoring) and others focused on leadership (think: partner pipeline). Too often, minorities are not included in the partner track because they are perceived as underperforming.

This ties back to some of the same issues already discussed – norms and styles based on white, male leadership, and racial and gender barriers that limit opportunities for advancement and promotion. What compounds these problems is unequal access to learning and development focused on building leadership skills.

Access to these programs is vital because they provide opportunities for participants to demonstrate their skills and abilities; they also show their perspectives and differences can be assets rather than hurdles or limitations. The latter can be particularly difficult for black women, who have to overcome perceptions of the “angry black woman” that unfairly influence how their behaviors and actions can be interpreted.

Findings in the “State of Black Women in Corporate America” report by LeanIn show that black women experience more and a wider range of microagressions, which are indirect or subtle comments, insults or actions that are hostile, derogatory or otherwise express a negative view of an underrrepresnted group. According to the report,“more than 1 in 4 black women have heard someone in their workplace express surprise at their language skills or other abilities; [compared to] 1 in 10 white women.”

One idea might be to work with organizations such as LeanIn to better understand how these perceptions and microagressions impact women of color across the organzation – both from the perspective of the target (black women) and the offender (which, in this case, is everyone other than black women). By understanding both sides of the issue, firms can identify specific strategies to address the issue, such as training programs, mentoring programs, support programs, allyship programs and policy changes.

Taken as a whole, the goal of these strategies should be to improve the perception of, support for and intentional advancement of black women. These are just a few examples of how firms can work to develop solutions for black women based on how different challenges specifically manifest themselves within their organization.

I think the introduction of the LeanIn report says it best: “Women are having a worse experience than men. Women of color are having a worse experience than white women. And Black women in particular are having the worst experience of all.”

Although many of the challenges facing black women are also experienced by white women and other groups, effective solutions for those challenges are likely different for each. Following the logic of the “curb-cut” effect, identifying solutions specifically for black women could result in improvements to policies, sytems, programs, expectations and culture that will benefit the whole. 

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Carrie Stemke
By Carrie Stemke
Jan 4th 2021 10:34 EST

Please note, AccountingWEB supports diversity and inclusion and itself has a D&I initiative (of which this article is part). We also support free speech, but all respondents to the initial comment should kindly remember that we do not condone discriminatory comments, and these (and the poster) will be removed.

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